Building an Engaged School: Educators Crave It

Erik EllefsenInnovation

Review of Prior Blogs:

In April 2016, I started a blog series entitled Building an Engaged School because of the misery of educators in their work, lack of stability in school leadership, and the ensuing educator shortage (which is now upon us). The blogs I wrote were intended to help school boards, school leaders, and policymakers to think through what we know about successful schools. In review of those blogs:

  1. An Introduction: When I first began this series the Gallup poll for workplace engagement was 33%, and nearly two years later it has only fluctuated slightly. Likewise, teacher engagement has shifted in the past twenty years, which I think is reflective of the 30% decrease in college students pursuing teaching certification. I understand that there are flaws with Gallup’s research, but even in its limitations it provides us the opportunity to reflect on our profession as well as seek ways to innovate our work. Some new data from Gallup I found interesting:
  • Engagement nearly doubles when an employee has a manager that focuses on their strengths.
  • Engagement plummets with the most talented employees who have been in your organization for ten or more years.

2. Get a Leader: My desire in this blog was not to idolize leadership, but to focus in on engagement as the result of quality and stable leadership. I reference the research on HBR’s Top 100 CEO’s, and I think you will see that the continued research they share in the article What Sets Successful CEO’s Apart can be easily translated to successful school leaders:

Deciding with Speed and Conviction

Engaging for Impact

Adapting Proactively

Delivering Reliably

I would like to reiterate what I heard Michael Fullan recently say was his biggest indicator of school success – “the degree to which the leader interacts as a learner.”

3. Management Matters: As someone who has now spent twelve years in leadership and management I recognize the increasing importance of this for educator engagement. Even though leaders are important for building engaged workplaces it can be argued, based upon Gallup’s research, that mid-level managers are even more important. In a recent blog, The No. 1 Benefit That No One’s Talking About, Tom Nolan reviews prior research that states:

Having a bad manager is often a one-two punch: Employees feel miserable while at work, and that misery follows them home, compounding their stress and putting their well-being in peril.

Fortune’s 100 Best to Work For:

Recently, I began reading Fortune and found their eighteen year research on Best Companies to Work for as it compliments Gallup’s and HBR’s research as well as how it echoes what we are discovering via educational research for schools and even classrooms. The article explaining their rankings states:

The key to business success is maximizing human potential, accomplished through leadership effectiveness, values and trust. Get those pieces right, and you will see innovation and financial growth.

Imagine what might happen throughout our profession for educational innovation, student outcomes, and school growth if we consistently focused on:

  • Maximizing Human Potential
  • Leadership Effectiveness
  • Values
  • Trust

Collective Leadership:

This business research is being confirmed in education as well, and Jon Eckert’s book, Leading Together begins to explicate his research on effective schools and what they do differently. In particular he has further developed the concept and understanding of Collective Leadership and how professional educators working together bring about remarkable long-term results no matter what their context (rural, suburban, or urban) might be. In his book he states:

We also know that systems matter. Improvement is about more than one individual. “A bad system beats a good person every time” (Demming, 1993). Both teachers and administrators are important. Both are leaders. Collective leadership matters (Seashore-Louis, Leithwood, Whalstrom & Anderson, 2010).

Educators spend too much time down in the weeds worrying: Who is a leader? Who is not a leader? Is a leader defined by a position? Many times these conversations are driven by contracts and collective bargaining language that separates teachers and administrators. These can be important questions, but they are not the questions that will actually improve education. One of the primary attributes of great school leaders—both administrators and teachers—is the fact that they don’t define, they do. They get things done (bold is my emphasis).

Building an Engaged Faculty: Educators Crave It

It’s not hard to find in educational research the value of a high quality professional in every classroom; likewise, we have a growing understanding of the impact on entire school outcomes when those professionals get to work together as a regular part of their week. I won’t necessarily take time to lay that research out here, but remember that it is becoming more difficult to build engaged and productive faculties due to the educator shortage, fifteen years of policy that eviscerated professional culture, and in Christian schools a general anti-professionalism, anti-intellectualism, and lack of diversity. Therefore, if you’d like to build a dynamic and engaged faculty, some of my suggestions include:

Educators want to be Valued and work with Purpose:

I won’t belabor this point or argue the merits, but I want to share what I’ve come to know about my colleagues in Education. According to most research, Educators primarily desire to be valued, work in a purpose-driven environment, consistently clarify professional activity, and be trusted with professional autonomy. Educators want to be part of a community of learners who seek to not only make a difference in student lives, but who desire to impact their community and our world.

The culture within our profession that is created because of who is attracted into the profession creates other confounding factors that we need to develop and improve, but let’s start by valuing the professionalism, the motivations, and the sacrifices that drive educators to do the hard work they do.

Trust in People and the Process:

Education is filled with models, policies, and procedures that are implemented to bypass educators and the work process necessary to lead to greater student outcomes. I think you will find that Trust is a key part of Gallup’s, HBR’s, and Fortune’s research on success in business. Self-admittedly, I will say that this is extremely difficult to do in a school, and I put it second on this list because if educators aren’t valued or have a driving purpose for their work then Trust in the workplace will naturally be low.

In my experience, some descriptors of the most trust-filled environments I’ve discovered are:

  • Leaders who are in engaged in daily student-learning.
  • Leaders who do and enjoy professional development ‘with’ their colleagues.
  • An enjoyment for ambitious dialogue and an embrace of data-informed decision-making.
  • A commitment to honest and humble communication, but also an understanding of place, privacy, and confidentiality within the school.
  • Educators who have a thirst for learning.

Feedback as an improvement process:

As you see above in “Management Matters” there is a greater understanding of the impact of managers. We also know how difficult “the work” of education has become as we innovate, are more accountable for metrics of student outcomes, and the other responsibilities that schools have taken on to impact student well-being. Some of the work that I’ve come to understand through my mentor Kim Marshall (podcast) and CACE Fellow Dan Beerens is that regular, timely, meaningful feedback is the key to in-the-classroom improvement. Daily conversation matters to fulfillment in our work, but also regular feedback is important to an employee’s understanding for how they are doing, where they are going with their work, and if their efforts are appreciated.

Because of this research and understanding, I believe that the continued redesign of Evaluation, Feedback, and Professional Goalsetting need to continue to be innovated around what makes a difference to empowering and engaging educators within their professional role and context.

Teacher-leadership to Maximize Human Potential:

Teacher-leadership is a term that has been around for more than three decades, but it has developed in recent years to take into account the need and desire for schools to maximize their human and professional potential. I also know that teacher-leadership is a term that can be limited in its scope and impact because of collective bargaining and how it disseminates in public schools who is a teacher and administrator. The advantage for private schools is that they are less beholden to this dichotomy and can develop a more cohesive conversation about what it means to be a professional educator.

Take me for example, I am a twenty-year educator who has been a classroom teacher, coach, Dean of Academics with classroom teaching responsibilities, a high school principal who co-taught and organized the student leadership program, and for the past seven years as a counselor without teaching responsibilities. Whatever the role, responsibilities, or leadership impact, my desire was always to develop and promote high quality educational opportunities for students. Here are some of the behaviors I’ve discovered of schools that are committed to maximizing human potential:

  • Hybrid teacher-leadership roles that don’t fully take high-impact teachers out of the classroom.
  • Use a formal evaluation processes to help educators thrive in their current role and discover new opportunities for impact in the school, the profession, or possibly at another school.
  • Have a “Yes” culture, where educator-teams are encouraged to pursue new discoveries and opportunities to improve student outcomes.
  • Promote an organizational culture that is committed to leadership within the profession, developing new educators, and sending teacher-leaders out to lead and impact other schools. I once worked at a school that sent-out six school leaders from the eight-person leadership team.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a former student who took a job at one of the big tech companies here in Silicon Valley. The first comments her new boss made were, “My job is to help you find your next job here.”

Re-designing an organization to promote Collective Leadership (Beyond Buy-In):

Finally, this is probably the most complex process and is why I put it last. My goal is not to explicate this, but that successful leaders will intuitively build an organization that does much of this. However, this is a process that to be effective in transforming a workplace environment needs long-term support and analysis. In my experience, most school leaders don’t have the daily capacity to fully integrate Collective Leadership without external professional support. Likewise, as quickly as a school can be transformed is as quickly as it can fall apart without humble and consistent attention.

Keep an eye out for future podcasts with Jon Eckert on this issue as I know he hates the term “buy-in” as much as I do because in schools that is what we do ‘to’ educators rather than Collective Leadership being what we get to do ‘together.’


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.